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A loss for science

The passing away of three important Brazilian researchers

March witnessed the deaths of three prominent Brazilian researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP). Cesar Ades, a specialist in animal behavior and a professor of the Psychology Institute passed away on March 14, after being run over by a car in the city of São Paulo. Geographer Aziz Ab’Saber, former president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), passed away on March 16, at his home. Immunologist Júlio Cesar Voltarelli, one of the scientists who pioneered stem cell research in Brazil, passed away on March 21 in the city of Blumenau, State of Santa Catarina, after undergoing a liver transplant. In the name of the Board of FAPESP, and in his own name, Celso Lafer, president of the Foundation, expressed condolences and highlighted their outstanding contributions to the development of science in Brazil.



A broad view over the territory
“I was born in the midst of a sea of hills,” are the words of a poem written by Aziz Nacib Ab’Saber when he was an adolescent. He did not know it then, but these words predicted a professional trajectory that turned him into one of the best known experts on physical geography in Brazil. Few people have travelled as extensively as he did throughout the country, observing landscapes, people, and ways of life, in times when roads were precarious and work instruments almost non-existent, relative to what is now available.

From 1944, soon after graduating with a degree in history and geography from the University of São Paulo, to 1965, “I travelled throughout Brazil, because I couldn´t afford to go on longer trips, and no financial aid was available,” said this child of Lebanese parents in an interview later published in the book Cientistas do Brasil published by the SBPC. Ab’Saber was born in 1924 in the town of Luís do Paraitinga, State of São Paulo. Many years later, he became the chair of SBPC, which he presided over from 1993 to 1995. “As I didn´t have a camera, I learned to draw the landscapes I saw.”

As a result of the analyses of Brazilian landscapes, Ab’Saber, who passed away at the age of 87, improved the map of the so-called morphoclimatic domains, which had been initially prepared by geographer Aroldo de Azevedo, a professor from USP. Ab’Saber had been Professor Azevedo’s assistant. As a professor, Ab’Saber adapted the so-called refuge theory to Brazilian reality, as proposed by zoologist Paulo Vanzolini and conceptually formulated by Germany’s Jürgen Haffer in 1969, to explain the receding and expanding of forests according to climate changes. For at least three decades, this approach was the most widely accepted explanation of a number of biological phenomena in the southern part of the continent, including Brazil. Ab’Saber’s research work also attracted the interest of geologists and biologists, who normally resist acknowledging what geographers do.

“I confess that it took me a long time to start using my scientific knowledge as an instrument of political pressure to get better conditions for my country and its population,” he acknowledged. Even after he retired from USP, he participated in public debates and voiced his opinions on controversial issues – such as the Forestry Code – related to biodiversity and environmental preservation. He was one of the few academics who publicly voiced his opposition to the consensus on the anthropocentric origin of climate changes.



The quiet observer of animals
Indifferent to the strong summer heat of Alexandria, the northern Egyptian city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a 13-year old boy observes the delicate movements of a spider in a web spun among the leaves of a bush. Out of curiosity, he catches a grasshopper and places it in the spider web. He takes out a notebook and describes what the spider does to the insect, the spider’s meal. This was how, as a young adolescent, Cesar Ades started developing his passion for animal behavior, or ethology.

Ades passed away on March 14, at the age of 69. When he was 13, Ades and his family moved from Cairo to São Paulo. In 1960, Ades entered the University of São Paulo (USP) with the intention of studying psychology. He soon became interested in animal psychology. As a professor, researcher and coordinator of the ethology laboratory of USP’s Psychology Institute, he pioneered a number of research studies and went on to become one of Brazil’s foremost experts in this field.

By means of lab experiments, Ades showed that spiders can learn and improve basic instincts, such as the ones linked to hunting and web spinning, generally viewed as an innate and unchangeable skill. “Instincts certainly function as a kind of pre-programming of the brain,” he stated to Ricardo Zorzetto, science editor of Pesquisa FAPESP, in an interview published in November 2004. In March 2003, the journal had published an article on the unique form of communication of the muriquis monkeys, whose characteristics had been described by Ades and his team. In January 2006, he introduced Sofia, a mutt with noteworthy learning skills, such as distinguishing simple sentences and using a keyboard to communicate with people. Ades had seen the dog being trained.

Ades was a former deputy director and director of the Psychology Institute. As such, he took on other administrative duties, such as director of the Advanced Studies Institute (IEA-USP), a post he held until February this year. He had no airs about him, and always treated his peers and staff cordially. He was also very friendly with students – there are many photos of him smiling in the midst of a group of students. “He convinced me that ideas were more important than academic ranks,” Eduardo Bessa, one of the students enrolled in Ades’ post-graduate course on animal behavior, wrote in his blog as soon as he heard the news of Ades’ death. Bessa is now a professor at the University of the State of Mato Grosso and a specialist in ethology.

On March 8, Ades was walking along Paulista Avenue when he was run over by a car. He was taken to USP’s Clinicas Hospital. He underwent a number of surgeries, but his injuries proved to be fatal. He passed away six days later. He is survived by two daughters.


Júlio Cesar VoltarelliEDUARDO CESAR

Courage at the service of stem cells
Courage and determination were outstanding characteristics of the personality of immunologist Júlio Cesar Voltarelli, full professor at the Clinical Medicine Department of the Medical School of Ribeirão Preto (FMRP) of the University of São Paulo (USP). Voltarelli passed away on March 21, at the age of 63. He was one of the pioneers of stem cell research in Brazil. He achieved promising results in clinical experiments with human beings, who were given stem cells to treat autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and type 1 diabetes.

“Voltarelli pioneered the possibility of using autolog transplants (of the patients themselves) of stem cells as a way of treating immunological diseases. This procedure can be improved and applied to a number of situations. He had the courage to deal with all the complicated aspects to conduct tests on humans,” said Marco Antônio Zago to Agência FAPESP. Marco Antônio Zago is the dean of research at USP and coordinator of the Cell Therapy Center of FMRP, one of the Research, Innovation, and Diffusion Centers (Cepids) funded by FAPESP. Voltarelli was one of the senior researchers at this centers. “He left an outstanding scientific legacy,” says Mayana Zatz, coordinator of the Center for Studies on the Human Genome, another Cepid.

He got his medical degree, with specialization in immunology, from FMRP-USP in 1972. He joined the residency program at the same university, where he also got his master’s degree and PhD. He enrolled in and attended three post-doctoral program: at the University of California in San Francisco (1985-86), at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle (1987-88), and at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego (1999-2000). In spite of his outstanding professional curriculum and leadership skills, he knew how to listen to different opinions. “He never felt superior to anyone, argued his point of view and never had any problems respecting counter-arguments,” endocrinologist Carlos Eduardo Barra Couri wrote in his personal blog. Burri is also a researcher at FMRP and participated in research conducted by Voltarelli.

The immunologist had diabetes and hepatitis C. As a result of serious liver problems, he had to undergo a liver transplant. The surgery was scheduled for March 6, at the Santa Isabel Hospital in the city of Blumenau, State of Santa Catarina, where the waiting line for a liver transplant is shorter than in São Paulo. Voltarelli died 15 days later, while still in the hospital. He is survived by his wife, endocrinologist Ângela Leal, a professor at the Department of Medicine of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and two daughters. Voltarelli’s wife had also taken part in his research work. The burial was held in his hometown of Cedral, near the city of São José do Rio Preto, State of São Paulo.